A Teacher Changed My Son’s Life

  • Team Schusterman

December 9, 2014

This post first appeared on the TNTP blog.

We talk a lot about great teaching here on the TNTP Blog. Today, we’re hearing from a parent whose child was fortunate enough to land in a special classroom. Gina Tovar is the mother of Reece Tovar, a former student of Fishman Prize winner Steve Sanders, an electric teacher of high school band at UIC College Prep in Chicago. Reece graduated in 2012 and is currently a sophomore at DePaul University. We asked Ms. Tovar to reflect on what Mr. Sanders meant to her and her son. 

Tell me a little bit about Mr. Sanders as a teacher.

First, it is an honor to be asked to do this interview. Mr. Sanders inspired my son tremendously. Not only my son, but all of his students. He made them feel special.

You can tell when people are genuine, and Steve definitely is. I could tell from watching him interact with my son and other students, talking to them outside of the classroom and hanging out with them, that his care for them was genuine.

He is also quite famous for his style. I may have seen him twice without a suit and a bowtie. In fact, I would sometimes get dressed up for report card day and tell my son it was because I was going to see Mr. Sanders—I needed to compete.

What was your son’s relationship with Mr. Sanders like?

My son was lucky to have Mr. Sanders all four years of high school as both a homeroom teacher and music teacher. Mr. Sanders got to know him very well and really became a guiding figure in his life. Mr. Sanders would often have one-on-one conversations with my son about personal things that are not always covered in a classroom but are important nonetheless, like how a young man should act and the meaning of respect. He shared his life experiences with my son.

I’ve met a lot of my son’s teachers, and many were just as nice and good in many ways, but Mr. Sanders was more personal. A lot of people can be courteous and have manners, but the level of sincerity he puts behind his actions is something you do not see very often.

Did you see that extend to his relationships with parents? What did Mr. Sanders do to involve you and other parents in his classroom?

I helped Mr. Sanders with quite a few events that went on in school. His parents come to a lot events, which I think speaks to how well he is able to engage them. What I liked most about Mr. Sanders is that he was always up for new ideas to help the school and get parents involved in the process.

I remember speaking to him about making report card day a little livelier—adding some music performances, bringing in food, that sort of thing. Mr. Sanders was all for it. He told all the parents about the idea and made sure everyone was involved in the process. When it came to report card day, we had this whole spread of food and beautiful music. It was more of a party than a parent-teacher conference and we had such a good time.

How did Mr. Sanders use music to reach your son?

Mr. Sanders can play pretty much any instrument there is, and that was always very inspiring to students. When my son first started school, I tried to force him to get into music because my family has a history of being good at it. It was a battle at first, complete with stomping of the feet and smacking of the lips.

I told Mr. Sanders about this struggle. When he saw my son’s talent, he told Reece I was right and explained why I was pushing him. He made my son believe in himself and gave him the confidence to play.

When my son first joined the jazz band that year, there were three trumpet players. By the time he graduated, he was lead trumpet and competing in a bunch of competitions both in-state and out-of-state. My son remembers the trips Mr. Sanders organized very fondly. He once took my son to Boston. It was the first time my son had ever been there. Mr. Sanders made me feel very secure about having my son go on a trip like that. As a parent, that is so important.

Reece thought the trip would not be fun. He thought the team would go, compete, and come home. But when he returned, he told me all about how Mr. Sanders took the time out to show them the city and all the sights. It was a very eye-opening experience for him.

Did you notice a change in your son over the four years he was in Mr. Sanders’ class?

From the very beginning, I could tell my son liked Mr. Sanders. I could tell he respected him. He would come home every day and tell me everything about what Mr. Sanders said, what Mr. Sanders did and what Mr. Sanders wore. But one moment in particular comes to mind.

One day towards the end of his senior year, Mr. Sanders and I were discussing my son’s improvements in attitude. He reached into his desk and pulled out a picture of my son from his freshman year. We both stared at the picture and Mr. Sanders made a comment about how proud he was to watch my son grow from a chunky young boy into a nice, respectful young man who was going to do something with his life. As a parent, that was amazing to hear. I left through the back door of the school that day because I was crying so much. Being a single mother, I can say it’s been very hard to find a good man to have in my son’s life. But right then and there I realized Mr. Sanders was the positive influence my son needed. He was a role model.

Has your child had a life-changing teacher? Honor them by nominating them for our $25,000 Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practice (or if you’re a teacher, apply online yourself). Applications are due December 16.

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